House of air and light

PHOTOS: Ryno | PRODUCTION: Sumien Brink | WORDS: Michelle Coburn


A heavy slate gate near the end of a quiet road in Tamboerskloof gives no hint of the new, ultra-modern home within – a place so airy and transparent that it seems to float.

The canopy offered by the wild olive tree in the entrance court is the perfect place to pause and take in the dramatic vista ahead – the jagged peaks of the Hottentots Holland Mountains, visible through the glass front door and wall, draw spellbound visitors through the airy dining area and living room to the transparent balustrade beyond.

It is immediately clear that nothing – not furnishings, walls, works of art, or even colour – is permitted to detract from the spectacular view around which the house has been cleverly designed.

On a hot, windless Cape Town day, the pace of the city can be taken in with a sweeping glance – from the glistening queue of cars snaking along Tafelberg Road towards the lower cable station, to the humming construction sites in the city and the busy harbour in the north. Yet, amazingly, here there is sheer silence, broken only by the calming sound of the water feature above the swimming pool.

Celebrating the city

This home clearly perfectly meets the needs of the two medical professionals who have lived here for the past two years: it’s a house that celebrates the city, yet at the same time permits its owners to retreat from the demands of their busy lives.

The brief by the husband-and-wife team to the architects, Bert Pepler Architecture and Interiors, was clear: the existing wild olive trees on the plot had to be retained, and they wanted a contemporary home with no corridors, walls, visible cupboards – or even a kitchen! The reason for the last request? They are both too busy to cook and decided to build for themselves rather than to meet the needs of some future, unknown buyer.

But Bert persuaded them to include a small kitchen and the lady of the house now concedes that it is one of her favourite spaces because it can be opened up to the adjacent pergola by means of a sliding panel. Now, when she does have the time, she feels as if she is cooking outdoors. ‘In fact Bert was so incredibly successful at carrying out our “inside-outside” brief that not even the dogs can tell the difference, which doesn’t make it easy to potty train a six-week-old puppy!’

According to Bert, the 438m2 site – a subdivision from one of the adjoining properties – presented major challenges: it was narrow and steep, creating a tunnel-like effect from the rear, western street edge as it sloped to the eastern boundary.

To counteract this, the bulk of the house was positioned along the front edge of the plot in the form of three linear structures stacked on top of each other – the living level in the centre, with the main bedroom suite above it and the guest room, guest bathroom and study at the bottom.

This strategy maximised the view and light, while at the same time reducing the footprint of the house to create space for a swimming pool flanked by a small patch of greenery. The main structure is linked to the rear of the site by a ‘spine’ building that accommodates the scullery, laundry and gym.

Quest for simplicity

One of the house’s most striking features is its system of sliding glazed doors, timber shutters and panels that allow the owners to continuously recreate their space. They are able to adjust the interior according to their needs for light, ventilation and privacy, as well as alter the façade to create either a public or more private residence depending on their mood. On a perfect day the house is completely open to the mountains and city, but when the infamous southeaster roars – they can quite literally batten down the hatches for a more intimate environment.

With Ginja the Jack Russell (named after the owners’ favourite restaurant) and Koffie the wire-haired terrier curled up on the wool rug beneath the gas fireplace, and Coco the Burmese in his favourite hideaway spot in the bedroom’s walk-in closet, the Mother City’s unpredictable weather, traffic and a multitude of everyday hassles are easily forgotten.

The sense of peace is enhanced by the monochromatic palette. The interior is all black, white and grey, the only concessions to colour appearing in a few splashes of red: the east-facing Balzac chair by Matthew Hilton in the main bedroom, the gleaming KitchenAid mixer in the kitchen and a scattering of wire bowls from Heartworks. There is also a cool hint of mint green in the glass tiles that clad both baths.

The detail lies in the perfect finishes and in the contrasts between materials: dull concrete, glossy marble and matt timber. ‘We used a system of subtle pattern making with Japanese lines, panels and textures,’ explains Bert. ‘The creation of all this simplicity actually involved much complexity!’ The kitchen that almost never was, is, in fact, one simple black panel, and the sitting room and main bedroom each contain a white panel behind which appliances and belongings are concealed.

‘We actually own precious little,’ reveal the owners. ‘We believe that if you don’t use it, you shouldn’t keep it. Each time we have moved we have pared down – it’s been a gradual process of owning less to the point where, if we had to move from here we wouldn’t even be able to take the beds with us because they are part of the joinery.’

This quest for simplicity in design and in living has been so successful that the final result has found resonance in a distant land. On a recent visit to Cape Town, Turkish architect Serhat Öztürk wanted to see the house on the hill that almost appears to defy gravity. His only comment after he’d been given the grand tour? ‘Nothing… but everything!’

• Bert Pepler Architecture and Interiors: 021 762 5188, bertpepler@telkomsa.net